As an electrical, mechanical and ICT engineer, Maarten Strengers flies to Africa when his technical know-how is needed; when there is a problem with installation capacity, or to advise on a solar community centre. “After a while you become Mr. Magic,” he says. “I had so many occasional customers that it wouldn’t be correct to leave again.” Or as he puts it, “like highly paid consultants who fly in, get a lot of money for the project and piss off, leaving the problem for the local guys. It’s my frustration. I never wanted to be that, ‘bringing light to the poor Africans’.” By creating Greenlink in 2004, he consciously fought the “classic NGO way of doing things”.
In Gambia, Strengers partnered with a local company, and recruited and trained locals, working in challenging conditions where there is no investment for renewable energy. There is a high level of impact created by bridging the digital gap, he says. “It can be 50 degrees in the middle of nowhere. I’ll be helping build an ICT school for lots of kids who might only see their first laptop when they’re 21. In West Africa I’ll often work on a computer lab where often the only unit working out of 30 is used by the teacher.”
For Strengers the key vision behind Greenlink is to empower local communities, especially since there is a lack of education on the ground. “We’re building a company, we’re not rescuing Africa,” he says. “There is just as much corruption in Europe – it’s just called ‘lobbying’ over there. Europeans are better at hiding it – we’ll call it KPMG. We’re fighting two battles, which makes our company fragile.” His customer base ranges from the UN, remote schools (partnering with Close the Gap), off-grid hospitals, as well as lodges and camps. He speaks of the “peace of solar” in this latter category; with a Dutch business partner in Tanzania, the company has specialised in the hospitality industry. He is referring to powering eco-lodges “with no sound of a generator”, but the concept can also apply to the organic growth of Greenlink. As a group, Greenlink operates as independent entities in five countries, with local partners in Gambia and Tanzania, although he admits that there is a “lot of political uncertainty in several countries.” In Gambia, Greenlink leases systems to customers who pay a monthly fee, in partnership with a respected microfinance institution. “Running a company in Africa is a challenge,” says Strengers. “You want to reduce your challenges.”
With further expansion to Guinea-Bissau and Zambia, the company will grow from 35 people to over 55. East Africa is becoming an increasingly attractive market, says Strengers; Greenlink has worked on national reserves including Serengeti and Masaai Mara. An office opened in Kenya, and Greenlink bought a local solar installation company they liked and worked with. Another aspect of working in rural areas, or doing business in Africa in general, says Strengers, is dealing with logistics. “Driving in Tanzania alone is like driving from Denmark to Spain. Plus, you have to know how to get to islands with 30 tons of battery.” When necessary, Greenlink flies its staff to remote locations with the equipment needed on a small plane.
Until now, funding has come from the founders own pockets. “That’s why we grew so slowly. Our biggest hurdle is the lack of stock.” “Forced growth” is a direction Strengers would like to focus on in the next six months, via business accelerators and the like. “This is particularly since we see institutions coming in and staying for two years, building offices, ruining our market and finding out it’s not the model they can handle, and leaving again.” Current partners include the Unreasonable Instituteand the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre.
Impact is not something that Greenlink tracks actively. “I’m a bit reluctant to look at the classic story of why people ‘bring light to an off-grid village’, over and over again,” he says. “Our company certainly focuses too much on hi-tech solutions – but you can have a good product with bad marketing. The work we are doing is in such fantastic places – people save their whole life to go on safari, and I get to work with the elephants behind me.”
–Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee